Radio Readers BookByte: Worship at the Church of Silicon Valley

Oct 21, 2019

Big Bang Data Exhibit at CCCB
Credit Wikimedia Commons

In “Homo Deus” (Latin for “man, the god”), Professor Yuval Noah Harari tells us a new religion is coming out of California’s Silicon Valley. It is called “Dataism.”

The most important precept is connecting with everything, producing the promise of a new universe in which we merge totally, disappearing into the flow, of data.

For me, Harari’s beliefs in the new tech sound more akin to the early, idealistic days of the personal computer when we thought the new technology would produce a new human era

In the 1970s and 1980s I bought the idea that personal computers free of computer centers and mainframes, instead of terminals attached to mainframes, meant democratic freedoms. The stranglehold of “big iron” would be broken, forever.

We could not have been more wrong.

We forgot that our small “freedom machines” were also products of large corporations. Those corporations simply saw a new market, not freedoms. At first these personal machines used modems to dial other machines.

Once the World Wide Web program spread access to the internet via “hyperlinks” to anyone the world, the web began to grow. Cell phones emerged and were connected to mainframes, unnoticed, for the most part. When cell phones turned “smart” they became the new terminals, no longer hardwired to the mainframe and no longer in the same building, but terminals all the same. Big iron was back. “Big Iron” was in our pockets.

Cell phones became personal electronic devices and entertainment centers as the networks began to support more bandwidth. From there the same corporations which previously sold us 8mm movies, then VHS tapes and then DVDs now started killing those products in favor of streaming the same content. That way they had total ownership and control. DVDs that you could play again and again for no extra cost are almost defunct.

With streaming, the providers can charge you at each play. Even our own notes and journals become the possession of some “cloud” (say “server” somewhere distant) such as “Drive” or “One Note.” Our applications, our home security and total home monitoring (Alexa, Siri, etcetera) are sold to us a convenient helper, like a butler or maid while they are also personal spies, barely felt.

Even cars, trucks and tractors operate with proprietary software which may be deemed illegal to repair. Light bulbs, refrigerators and many hardware items are connected via the IOT (internet of things), regardless of functional need. In connecting they expose us, repeatedly, to hackers. Mostly because the makers of the products want to spy on us and sell or use the information they glean. Software programs are increasingly subscription only. The programs check “home base” each time they are run, or they won’t work. Any or all of it could disappear in an arbitrary moment or a missed payment.

Like tenant farmers after the civil war, where the means of earning a living were taken over and controlled by “the store,” we are becoming sharecroppers in our own lives. Were I to rename the book for this section I might call it “Homo Servus” instead of “Home Deus.” Servus is Latin for slave.

We’ve been led into this using the twin drugs of convenience and connection, like the drugs of “Brave New World.” And now it is proposed we will upgrade by directly connecting computers to our brains.

As long as the tethers and the surveillance are unseen and unfelt, “we” love it.